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Global warming mission could survive Prop. 23, experts say

Even if voters decide to suspend California’s landmark global warming law at the polls in November, most of its goals to reduce greenhouse gases can still be met, according to experts.

Such a vote would be a political blow to the governor and environmentalists, undermining their campaign to expand California’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts here and elsewhere, but it wouldn’t freeze most of the pioneering programs that carry out the state’s fight against global warming, said legislative analysts and others.

“Some of the biggest programs … would go on,” said Louise Bedsworth, a research fellow specializing in global warming at the Public Policy Institute of California. They operate under the umbrella of the 2006 law but were created through separate legislation or regulatory action.

The ballot measure, funded largely by out-of-state oil companies that stand to lose financially if Californians curb their use of fossil fuels, would suspend the global warming law until the state’s unemployment rate is no higher than 5.5% for a year, a rare occurrence.

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That would put on hold some programs embedded in the law, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which is charged with interpreting for voters the possible effect of state ballot measures.

Among those is a centerpiece of the law: creation of an ambitious system to cap the greenhouse gases that industries are allowed to emit. Businesses would be given permits within that cap, and a market would be established for trading the permits so companies wishing to exceed their allowances could purchase more. Companies with credits to spare could sell them.

The cap-and-trade program would achieve 20% of the law’s main goal of rolling emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, according to state regulators. Bedsworth says the remaining 80% can be met mostly through programs that already exist and would be unaffected by a suspension.

Mark Newton, who oversees environmental issues in the Legislative Analyst’s Office and legislative lawyers with whom his unit consulted agreed, citing new energy-efficiency standards, restrictions on vehicle emissions and plans for energy companies to provide more power from such renewable resources as the sun and the wind. Programs intended to reduce pollution by equipping 1 million California homes and businesses with solar panels and promoting more urban development around public transportation would also probably continue.

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An emissions reduction plan on which legislative leaders and the governor hope to reach final agreement this month could also play a key role. The proposal, SB 722 by Sen. Joe Simitian (D- Palo Alto), would require energy companies to get more of their electricity through renewable resources.

And analysts say lawmakers and the governor retain the ability to restore some programs that could be affected by a suspension of the law — for example, one requiring fuel companies to make the gasoline and diesel they sell burn cleaner and to provide more environmentally friendly alternatives to those fuels.

Supporters of the ballot measure say they are targeting a fewprograms, including cap-and-trade, and are not seeking to dismantle all environmental regulation in California. They say businesses cannot afford to comply with all of the law’s requirements in the current economic climate.

“What is wrong with pushing the hold button until the economy gets back in shape?” asked Anita Mangels, spokeswoman for Yes on 23. “No one is saying we shouldn’t have these regulations. They are just saying now is not the time.”

Proponents of a suspension have an uphill battle. A poll released late last month by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 67% of Californians support the global warming law.

Still, the political effect of Proposition 23 could be huge even if the practical effect is not, the experts say. The global warming law created a comprehensive climate policy and an environmental mission for the state, with benchmarks for California’s myriad regulatory agencies to follow.

It was also a call to arms, crafted to serve as a platform from which California would push other states, even other countries, to adopt its aggressive approach to global warming. One of the law’s stated goals is placing California “at the forefront of national and international efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.”

“This is a model for the country as a whole,” said Bedsworth. A suspension “would have a big symbolic impact.”

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And the law is Schwarzenegger’s signature, legacy-enhancing achievement in Sacramento. His championing of it has landed him on the covers of national news magazines and positioned him as a leader in the fight against climate change. It is one of the few major policy achievements the lame-duck governor can cite as he prepares to leave behind a state beset with financial turmoil, a deteriorating school system and a prison overcrowding crisis.

Not everyone is comforted by the finding of legislative analysts, government attorneys and think-tank experts that the goals of the law can largely be reached even if it is suspended. Some environmentalists argue that the measure is written in a way that invites litigation by business interests eager to challenge the overall regulation of emissions.

Kristin Eberhard, a California-based attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says some language in the initiative might be interpreted as an order that state agencies stop anything that employs the law, which is sometimes called by its legislative name, AB 32.

“It says no state agency shall continue pursuing any program that implements AB 32…. That could mean everything from energy-efficiency standards to green building programs,” she said. “I think they used that language very purposefully.”

Wade Crowfoot, West Coast political director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said “voters should proceed with great caution. The way this is written, we believe it puts all these programs in jeopardy.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that courts are unlikely to take such an expansive view of the measure. But Newton acknowledged that anything is possible if the proposition passes and becomes the subject of litigation.

“There is some uncertainty,” he said.

evan.halper@latimes.com


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